The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton


Available from McClelland & Stewart

Available from McClelland & Stewart

The Luminaries opens with Walter Moody innocently entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in the mining community of Hokitika on New Zealand’s west shore. The year is 1866 — while Moody has trained as a lawyer back home in the Mother country, he has just arrived in the port, following his father and brother to the colonies to seek his fortune as a hardscrabble miner in the latest gold boom where economic security for a lifetime is just one lucky nugget find away.

It is also fair to say that he is young enough to want some adventure before settling down and (conveniently for both author and reader) the crew in the room at the Crown will provide it:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportments and dress — frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill — they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway — deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

booker logoIndeed, Moody has stumbled upon a hastily-called conference whose participants have immediately retreated into silence upon his entry. Two weeks earlier, three things happened on a single night in Hokitika. A drunken hermit, Charlie Wells, was found dead in his cabin outside the town — the presence of a phial of laudanum and, even more important, £4,000 worth of smelted gold hidden away has made his demise suspicious. His body was found by Alistair Lauderback and his aides who are on their way across the mountain pass above the village — the West Canterbury area has earned a seat in Parliament and Lauderback is seeking to become its first member. Lauderback also features in the discovery of the second happening:

On the outskirts of Hokitika their company was further delayed. As they advanced upon the township they came upon a woman, utterly insensate and soaking wet, lying in the middle of the thoroughfare. She was alive, but only barely. Lauderback guessed that she had been drugged, but he could not elicit any kind of intelligence from her beyond a moan. He dispatched his aides to find a duty sergeant, lifted her body out of the mud, and, while he waited for his aides to return, reflected that his electoral campaign was off to a rather morbid start. The first three introductions he would make, in town, would be with the magistrate, the coroner, and the editor of the West Coast Times.

The woman is Anna Wetherell, a fairly recent (and very attractive) addition to the town’s supply of whores. She is charged with attempted suicide, once she comes to in the town gaol.

The third event of that evening is the disappearance of the town’s richest man, Emery Staines, a prospector in his early 20s who has found enormous fortune with some very significant strikes. No one knows whether he is dead, missing or simply departed back home.

A lot of questions have been raised during the two weeks since those events and each of the 12 men in the smoking room at the Crown has reason to be concerned. None is definitely guilty of anything, but each might be guilty of something — and collectively they might be guilty of a lot. While they had gathered to discuss strategy, the device of Moody’s uninvited arrival gives the author the chance to have a number of them relate their part in the background of the story. The group is a disparate lot — a banker, hotelier, shipping agent, Anna’s whoremaster (himself a goldfields magnate), and a Chinese who runs the local opium den are just a sampling of the spread.

Since the most readily apparent distinctive feature of The Luminaries is its length (832 pages), I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that it takes author Catton 360 pages to set the elements of her plot in place through the telling of those stories at the Crown. After all, if you are reading the book itself, you can physically tell that you still are not half way through by the time that first section is completed. The two excerpts that I have quoted illustrate her attention to detail on the micro-level — rest assured, she is equally as assiduous when it comes to character and the nuances of plot.

Having said that, don’t let the prospect of length put you off (unless, of course, the cascading sentence in that first excerpt has already done that — if it has, give the novel a miss). The Luminaries is a Victorian-style novel in the tradition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life or one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books in that it chronicles the tale of an entire community with a large cast of characters, each of whom is given significant attention — although Catton’s community is a rough-and-tumble mining town not a class- and cleric-dominated English shire.

Indeed, perhaps a better comparison would be some recent Victorian-style mysteries such as Sarah Waters The Little Stranger or D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day both of which also found favor with Booker Prize juries and earned a place on the shortlist. These kind of novels may not be to everyone’s taste, but when well-executed they certainly impress some.

I have noted in my reviews of some other 2013 Booker titles that this year’s jury has an affection for books that use an uncommon structure: jury chair Robert Macfarlane confirmed that when the shortlist was announced this week, taking pride that they had produced a list of “novel novels”.

The Luminaries is one of those, employing a device I have certainly not seen before: Catton uses the golden ratio when it comes to determining the length of her chapters. There are 12: the first is 360 pages long, the second 158, the third 104 — and then you come to the tenth at 8, the 11th 6, the last 3. While that makes for some heavy sledding in the first few sections, it does have an interesting side effect. I can’t believe I am writing this, but the final 150 pages positively galloped along.

There is another aspect of The Luminaries on which I am totally unqualified to comment that deserves mention. You may notice from the review that there were 12 men in the Crown smoking room and 12 sections to the book. The novel has an astrological side as well: each section is introduced with an astrological chart, those 12 men each have a related house (both in the sky and on the ground) and sub-chapter headings continue the theme (“Jupiter in Sagittarius” is an example). My lack of interest in astrology is exceeded only by my complete lack of knowledge of it — those with interest and knowledge may find a theme that completely passed me by.

Eleanor Catton made a major splash with her first novel The Rehearsal, published when she was just 23 — you can count me as one of those who was mightily impressed as you can tell from my review. She is only 28 now and can already add a Booker short-listing to her resume. Not just that, but this novel, with its historical theme and all its complexity, is completely different from The Rehearsal. No one call tell at this point whether she is just experimenting with form or whether she intends to keep on doing that. What cannot be denied is that she is a young author of enormous talent — while either (or both) her books might not suit your taste, they are exceptionally well done.

Catton was raised in New Zealand and resides there now (although she wrote The Luminaries while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop), but she was born in Canada and retains citizenship — which makes this novel Giller eligible. We will find out on Monday next if this year’s Giller jury (Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan and Jonathan Lethem) is as enthusiastic with this “novel novel” as the Booker Jury is. Personally, despite the non-Canadian subject matter, I would be surprised if it does not show up on the Giller longlist.


21 Responses to “The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton”

  1. Jason Says:

    I always love reading your posts, especially around Man Booker/Giller time. I think you may have had a slip in this one: the lengthy Middlemarch is by George Eliot, not George Sand. Keep up with the incredible and insightful reviews.


  2. Lee Monks Says:

    Thanks for this timely and slightly-qualified thumbs up: you encourage me to have a go. I have the book at hand but, at 800+pages and coming as it does in such an ardour-withering format, I needed a bit of a spur. I’ve only this and the Jhumpa Lahiri missing from the six but I’ll do well to get through both in time. As things stand, I’d suggest Harvest will walk away with it (although this would seem the kind of thing MacFarlane and co. might well plump for) as it’s truly superb.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      “Slightly-qualified” is a fair assessment. At this stage, I feel guilty that I am more impressed with the writer’s pyrotechnics than I am by the impact of the work itself — I’ll see how that changes in the next few weeks..

      I don’t have the Lahiri on hand yet but intend to get to it immediately on arrival.

      I share your opinion of Harvest but could see the jury heading in a number of different directions when it comes time for the final choice. I’ve always tended to judge juries on how good their short list is — this one has variety and overall quality. I’d quarrel with a couple of the choices (Toibin because of length, Bulawayo just doesn’t rate with the others) but overall it definitely is on the positive side of neutral.


      • whisperinggums Says:

        I feel the same Kevin – having just read it and now coming check out your review. My response is qualified too. I loved reading her writing, and the historical setting was well done, but I wasn’t convinced about the “pyrotechnics” as you say. Did I need to know astrology in detail to get the most out of it? I have an awful feeling I did – and that’s a shame.


  3. Lee Monks Says:

    I wouldn’t feel too bad – if it’s a feat of literary engineering over 800+ pages that’s plenty to get enthused about, particularly given the panel will have to re-read it (!) at some point. For someone so young to have even pulled off such an endeavour is admirable: I look forward to drawing an assessment.

    Another Bulawayo naysay! 🙂

    (I rather liked it, but it’s not in the same league as Harvest, no doubt about it. I think it sits happily somewhere between ‘Superior supermarket novel’ and ‘Accomplished and authentic comic drama’…I look forward to your own assessment in a few days.)


  4. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    Sounds a curtains drawn, fire lit, rain pattering on the windows, winter read. Looking forward to it. Interesting to see if it endures after the Booker phase. I recall another stonking read :Charles Paliser’s The Quincunx about 20 years ago. A terrific read but does anyone recall it now?


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You have the reading atmosphere dead on — the opposite of the summer beach read. My impression is that Victorian-style novels tend to acquire their own version of an after-life, based on genre. I also would not be surprised to see this one show up as a movie — the New Zealand setting would offer some excellent scenery possibilities and they have learned how to do “big” movies there with Harry Potter.


    • Buried In Print Says:

      Couldn’t help but grin at this, because I have both Catton’s novel and Palliser’s in my current stack. Though, admittedly, I started reading The Q awhile ago, and I just added The Luminaries after learning the author was doing a reading in the city next month. So it’s rather random, not Booker-related.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      That is quite a coincidence. On a separate matter, the Real Giller Jury did not agree with my enthusiasm for this book. I can understand that — Catton’s personal Canadian connection is pretty much restricted to it being her birthplace and the novel itself has no Canadian content. So I would guess exclusion by geography, rather than lack of quality.


  5. Pye Says:

    I finished “The Luminaries” yesterday, having read it in three days. It totally consumed all my free time, and I loved every minute of it. It is brilliantly constructed, for sure, but it isn’t often that a book which experiments so much with form turns out to deliver such a cracking good reading experience as well! I hope it does make the Giller list. It certainly deserves to, and although I have been pulling for Jim Crace in the Booker race, I would certainly not be sorry to see the prize go to a book as cleverly written as this one instead.
    I am with you on the Toibin and the Bulawayo, Kevin. I am a big fan of Toibin’s writing in general, but this one just never got going for me, and then it was all over! Bulawayo’s book was a pleasant enough read, and I found myself truly moved at times, while reading the part set in Zimbabwe, by the way those resilient children with absolutely nothing created so much richness in their lives, but in the end I felt the whole amounted to something less than the sum of its parts.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is interesting what you observe about the readability of the story, because I think reactions to it are quite varied — I’ve seen a number of readers who don’t like the repetition that the narrative structure creates. I did not mind it — in fact, rather came to count on it to remind me of some of the details that tended to get cloudy (since there are quite a few of them).

      Given Atwood’s own experience with literary mysteries and Edugyan’s venture into historical fiction, I’d say the Giller’s prospects for Catton are pretty good.


  6. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    I’ve now read The Luminaries which took me a week.There is some extraordinary writing in it and I wish that Eleanor Catton had devoted more attention to the sights, smells and sounds of her setting. When she does do this the novel becomes very rich indeed. Unfortunately she devotes too much time to the teetering edifice of her narrative. Very cleverly constructed – I’m sure she used umpteen sheets of cross referenced notes – but in the end a bit of a bore. I don’t think a really great novel ends with the reader not caring about any of the characters as I felt at the end of this one. It’s a marvel in its way but it served to remind me what a wonderful author Dickens is.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      While I responded more positively, I can certainly identify with your concerns. When reading the book, I had the feeling that Catton’s gimmicks (both the astrology and chapter word length) were getting in the way of her narrative, not contributing to it. And while I hadn’t noticed it at the time, your observation about her descriptive writing rings true — she is very good at it, but sometimes seems to simply abandon that stream.

      From what I have read, those who find the novel wanting tend to do so because the characters just don’t get established for them and the reading becomes boring, as it did for you. I would say that is fair warning for those who are contemplating taking it on — while a couple of influential Prize juries have felt it a worthy achievement, others have not (and some readers have found it frustrating).


      • whisperinggums Says:

        Like Mary, I found the narrative, the complexity of the plot, boring after a while BUT I did like the characters, and I did care about the two on whom the novel includes.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Thanks for your comments WG — I’ll restrict my reply to this one.

        Four months on, I’d say I remember the overall story and at least some of the characters quite well. Like any Victorian novel (at least for me) at times the narrative seemed to slow badly, but I think that was more a reflection that the author was into one of the plot streams that was of lesser interest to me. I continue to respect the structure where each of the characters has an essential part of the puzzle but you really need all 12 of them for it to come together.

        All in all, I’d say my opinion now is probably somewhat more positive than it was when I had just finished the book — although I still don’t think it deserved the Booker.


  7. whisperinggums Says:

    Thanks Kevin … I am interested to see what I think a few months down the track. Some books need to settle before you really know their impact on you, don’t they?


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